by Chris Jennings
Most magazines and television shows provide in-depth tutorials and images of large decoy spreads tossed into big, open water or large marshes. Granted, in a perfect world, all avid waterfowl hunters would have thousands of acres of flooded timber or marsh to hunt; unfortunately, very few have that opportunity. The good news is the sometimes-overlooked small-water honey holes can produce great hunts across the country, from Florida to Washington state, for those willing to put in the effort, time scouting, and taking the bad days with the good.
When choosing an area littered with small ponds, such as the reclaimed mine property I used to hunt frequently in southern Indiana, scouting will improve your success. Unlike large bodies of water, which will hold ducks and geese on a regular basis throughout the season, migrating birds will pick and choose small ponds and then change their minds very quickly. There is usually something that attracts new birds to these smaller ponds throughout the season, whether it’s a food source, a gradually sloping mud bank or lack of pressure. Only the ducks know what makes one pond more attractive than another.
The problem hunters face when scouting small ponds is that seeing a pond covered in ducks in the evening often means they will be using another pond or field to feed in the morning.
"I have had great success hunting small ponds between 8 a.m. and noon, and similarly from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m.," says DU Media Relations Biologist Mike Checkett. "In the mornings, birds often return to small ponds for a drink after field feeding then move to a larger body of water to loaf for the day. Similarly, I have had great success in the afternoon as birds leave larger loafing areas to hit a small pond before heading back out to feed. Again, scouting and patterning birds is the key."
Checkett also mentions that while you may not see large numbers of birds, the opportunity to get those birds to decoy increases. There is a reason these birds are moving away from the large migrating flocks. It may be to get away from other birds, or later in the season, the pairing of some species may result in a tendency to drift away from larger flocks.
Unfortunately, small-water hunting can make for the most strenuous hunts. Even though the distance from shore to shore is significantly shorter, being able to adapt to hunting pressure will provide good shoots on a regular basis. Be prepared to pick up the decoys and move if the birds are using a different pond that day. Unlike big-water hunting, one or two hunts will shy birds away from areas where they are trying to seek peace and quiet. If you do come across a pond that is being used heavily, hunt it and then let it rest for four or five days.
Checkett explains that even big-water ducks will begin to shy away from areas where they have been hunted heavily and small-water ducks will begin to get gun shy much faster. If you’re going to hunt small ponds regularly, make sure you have four or five scouted thoroughly so you can rotate ponds throughout the season.
To the surprise of many hunters, small ponds can produce great numbers under the right circumstances, and depending on geographical location, hunters can experience mixed bags. Don't be surprised to see wood ducks, teal, mallards, black ducks, gadwall, widgeon and several other species using small water to rest between migration flights.
Selecting the right decoys can make a huge difference, but don't be afraid to mix and match. Toss out a small group of teal in one corner, some mallards and mix in a couple wood ducks as well. Be cautious as to how many decoys you use: while these ponds can hold large numbers, it's pretty rare, and a large number of plastic floaters can raise a red flag to wary birds.
"Realism is key when you’re going small," says Checkett. "Find an area with a log or a mud bank and deploy some full-bodied mallard decoys. A couple resters or sleepers will provide realism and the relaxed look you would typically find on small ponds."
Small water is also a target for predators, so keep in mind that ducks and geese will be cautious about dropping right in. They’ll scan the entire shoreline before deciding to commit, so being well camouflaged becomes an important factor. Face masks, gloves and a suitable blind for cover are necessities.
Be creative with your decoy spreads, but as Checkett mentions, keep realism in mind. Several small-water hunters have implemented crane or crow decoys in their spread to give circling waterfowl that extra sense of security.
Getting away from big water and big-water spreads means having to let go of the overzealous hail calls. I've listened to hunters hail calling nonstop all morning, achieving nothing more than becoming lightheaded from lack of oxygen. Keep calls short and focused on grabbing the attention, like a shorter, quieter hail. The attraction here should be the pothole's serenity and peacefulness, i.e., a great place to rest between feeding times, possible feed opportunities and a non-paired hen looking for company. Still using the comeback calls, and feeding calls as needed, callers have to remember, when hunting smaller water, every aspect of the hunt needs to be brought down to size.
Like nearly all waterfowl-hunting scenarios, the trick is being on the "X" and knowing where the birds want to be. Successful small-water hunters are famous for their spread variations and their unique attempts to make their pond or small lake look like a waterfowl paradise. After a few great hunts, someone who is accustomed to the big spreads, big calls and big numbers will quickly realize that the one aspect of small-water hunting that is big is the number of birds in the bag.